When South by Southwest 2018 officially puts its big arms around downtown Austin on Friday morning for the city’s annual bear hug of live music, new films and tech talk, it will provide no shortage of things to talk about.
For months the SXSW Conference and Festivals team and advisers vet thousands of public submissions through the PanelPicker process from last summer. Then SXSW itself adds a sizable roster of keynotes and featured speakers that are rolled out from the fall until SXSW actually begins (and sometimes after when some last-minute surprises pop up).
Looking at that list of talks each year, it starts to become evident what topics SXSW organizers believe attendees most want to hear about. In 2017, for instance, fresh from a divisive and emotional election cycle, it leaned hard on political content, offering up a talks by former Vice President Joe Biden (discussing cancer research), U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and a whole series of policy panels under the heading “Tech Under Trump.”
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For 2018, politics appear to be giving way to talks about how better relationships, more incisive entertainment and journalism, philanthropy, technology and smart public policy can create a better society.
Among the keynote names this year are award-winning filmmakers Barry Jenkins (”Moonlight”) and Darren Aronofsky (”Black Swan”), Atlantic national correspondent and “Black Panther” comics scribe Ta-Nehisi Coates, Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, mayor of London Sadiq Khan, phsychoterapist and podcaster Esther Perel, Austin quantum computing entrepreneur William “Whurley” Hurley, music executive Lyor Cohen and virtual-reality journalist Nonny de la Peña.
And on the Featured Speaker list, there are notable politicians (U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger), self-made tech successes (Michael Dell, Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd), music stars (Keith Urban, Ira Glass), more filmmakers (Spike Lee) and well-known journalists (Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour, the team behind The New York Times “The Daily” podcast).
But where SXSW often provides the most content for attendees is in the panels that might not have marquee names, but which focus on topics Film, Music and Interactive attendees are deeply passionate about, or at least intensely interested in hearing about at this moment in time.
This year, sexual harassment, gender equity and the #metoo movement are the subject of several dozen panels across the entire conference, from “Time’s Up! Shifting the Imbalance of Power” to “The Female Voices of Film Twitter,” both on Saturday, to a law-related panel, “Offscreen Behavior Matters: Morals Clauses for Performers.”
SXSW Chief Programming Officer Hugh Forrest said that the subjects will be reflected not only in these kinds of panels but in other kinds of content such as the Film Festival’s strong lineup of female-directed titles. “SXSW is a reflection of what’s going on in current events,” Forrest said. The #metoo movement “will be a topic that runs throughout,” he said.
In 2015, SXSW had one of its worst public-relations disasters over a set of panels related to the controversial “GamerGate” movement, which ended up leading to a spottily attended day-long summit focused on the subject of online harassment.
SXSW’s approach to some of these issues seems to have evolved. SXSW now has a Code of Conduct posted on its site that points attendees to resources, an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, and a 24-hour hotline to get support.
The racial schisms in the U.S. are addressed in a variety of keynote, featured speaker and panel presentations. Some of those panels include, “The Ally Toolkit: Engaging Equity Skeptics” on Wednesday and “Minorities in Tech: Old & New Challengers Under Trump” on Wednesday, “Algorithms, Unconscious Bias, & AI” on Tuesday and “America’s Mayors: Fighting for Racial Equity.”
Perhaps surprisingly, because it’s freshly back in the news, there’s a dearth of panels related to guns and school shootings apart from one called “Turning Tragedy Into Action” on Thursday.
Technology drove much of the major growth of SXSW from roughly 2007 to 2012 and continues to dominate the entire event. This year, some of the biggest tech topics are expected to be the blockchain and cryptocurrency rush, which is the subject of a two-day set of special programming on Wednesday and Thursday; artificial intelligence (Amazon’s Alexa, robots and beyond) and an ongoing theme of the event, how all of these mediums and technologies converge.
Perhaps the most interesting development at SXSW is how much it’s focusing on health and wellness, not only as an industry but as means of self-care. In addition to panels on its health track, it’s introducing a two-day free Wellness Expo taking place at Palmer Events Center.